Today, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, when we reflect on how Jesus is the shepherd who lovingly cares for his flock, leading them in the way they should go. The topic I have chosen for today’s article – Kenosis – is most often discussed in the context of Good Friday, but I find it relevant to today’s theme as well.

To begin our discussion on kenosis, we will first look at the words of St. Paul:

…though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… (Phil 2:6-9, emphasis added)

The Greek word St. Paul uses to describe Jesus’ self-emptying actions is kenosis. Of course, in this passage, St. Paul refers to the self-emptying sacrifice of the crucifixion, but he also describes Jesus’ entire human existence as kenosis. From the moment of his conception, throughout his ministry, and culminating in his passion and death, God completely and humbly emptied himself out of love for us.

Before we can understand the significance of divine kenosis, we must have some understanding of who God is. Of course, we can only fully understand his nature once we see him face to face, but we can do our best with our limited human understanding. God is eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all love. Our God created the universe out of nothing and holds it in existence because he loves all of it. This is the God who created all the stars in the sky, yet also saw a need for you and me in the world. While God’s infinite majesty, mercy, and love are indescribable, they are also things that our hearts instinctively long for and seek because they are the only ways to find true peace and happiness.

By contrast, humanity is broken. We are wounded by sin, and its effects permeate our fallen world. Humans are restless and rebellious, always trying to convince ourselves that our way is better than God’s. We are fixated and even addicted to our particular sins or destructive tendencies. We are lost sheep and desperately need a shepherd with our best interest at heart to guide us and lead us back on track – no matter how many times we wander off.

God’s kenosis, or self-emptying love, begins with the Incarnation. For God to take on human nature and enter our experience is a complete abasement of his divine nature. Furthermore, this is not something he had to do, but chose to do of his own free will out of love for his creation. Our almighty God took on human flesh and came into our world as a helpless infant. He emptied himself into a tiny vessel of vulnerability, dependency, and poverty as he was born in a stable and laid in a trough where animals ate and drank so that he could fully enter into and share our human experience.

Then, throughout his ministry, God continued to empty himself by ministering to people who were outcasts in the eyes of the rest of society. Subsets of the larger community were considered so lowly, either by their sin reflected in their diseased bodies or their despicable professions and lives of sin, that no respectable member of society would give so much as a glance their way. How much greater is God than those so-called respectable members of society? Yet there he was, interacting with the lowest of them, healing them, calling them to repentance, and revealing his self-emptying love for all of them without discrimination.

Finally, God’s divine kenosis finds its fullness in his passion and death. Jesus’ passion was the most humiliating and excruciating suffering any man in human history has ever endured. To begin with, he was completely innocent of any wrongdoing, was falsely accused, and betrayed by one of his best friends. After his arrest, he was tortured beyond recognition for no justifiable reason and was stripped naked, mocked, and spit on. Then he was hung on a cross in this humiliating state for all to see as he died an agonizing death and his poor mother helplessly looked on. Recalling the earlier description of God’s nature, this sort of treatment of him is beyond appalling. This is the same God who holds each of his accusers and abusers in existence because he loves them, and this was how they repaid him. Again, God did not have to do this but chose to out of love for us. Instead of remaining distant and unrelatable, he wanted to completely empty himself and suffer with us as we suffer so that, through him, we can know what it means to be unconditionally loved.

Through the lens of kenosis, we can now better understand just how good a shepherd Jesus is to his flock. Likely, not many of us know any shepherds, but we can use our imaginations to enter into this mystery. An ordinary shepherd cares for his flock in all the ways that are expected of him, according to his vocation. He feeds his flock, tends to their wounds, cuts out their matted wool, frees them from their tangles in the thorns, and leads them from pasture to pasture. As he spends time with his flock, a shepherd gets to know each individual sheep according to its personality and understands its unique needs, and they, in turn, learn to follow his voice, trusting in his care for them. But Jesus is not just any shepherd, and through the mystery of kenosis, he empties himself to the point of taking on the nature of the sheep he cares for. By his own free will, he gets into the muck with his flock, intermingling with them, eating with them, and participating in their activities while leading them to the next green pasture. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to imagine a shepherd loving his sheep so much that he offers to become one to share in their experience. This is self-emptying love, a love solely focused on the other with no regard for self.

Now, the question becomes, into what type of environment is this love being emptied? Jesus has poured out his entire self for your well-being and salvation. Do you allow this gift of love to be spilled out on the rugged, rocky terrain of your heart where it’s difficult to penetrate, or do you offer him an open vessel for this love to transform you? Your good shepherd took on your simple and messy nature to walk beside and suffer with you, never leaving you all alone, to lead you home to heaven. Will you respond by listening to his voice and trusting him to lead you through the muck and briars to the green pastures? This week, meditate on kenosis and the gift of self-emptying love God has freely offered you and, in return, offer a response of conversion and gratitude to him.

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